Do you have a child who has some irrational eating preferences? For example they eat certain foods at nursery but not at home, or there are foods they used to love that they now claim they don’t like? I know this situation well! Some of my daughter’s preferences have been that she eats cashews at her best friend’s house, but only almonds at home (even though she used to like all nuts apart from hazlenuts). Or that she will eat chips but not potatoes, (!?) or that she will eat spaghetti with sauce if she’s at a restaurant, but at home the sauce is ‘yucky’ and she wants it plain, (even though she used to like it!).
If this sounds like your child, then you may have given up hope that there’s anything you can do. I know I’ve gone through phases like this. You may have put it down to just ‘toddler irrationality’ and hope they grow out of it. You just want to make sure your child has some calories in them, and you just want to relax and eat your own dinner.
However there is a solution! Chances are if your child is acting irrationally in their food choices, the problem is not really about the food but with their feelings about the food.
Hand in Hand Parenting is based on the understanding that when children feel good, their thinking brain works well, and they can make rational choices, and co-operate from us, even from a very young age. However when children experience stress and upset the feelings get in the way of their behaviour. They start telling us that they aren’t feeling good by acting in ‘off-track’ ways.
When your child is acting picky about food, it’s hard to tell what to do. We may not want to force them to eat anything they don’t like, but we also want to make sure they are getting enough vitamins. And also just as important is that if your child’s pickiness is a sign that they aren’t feeling good, so we want to address those feelings, so they don’t get in the way of them enjoying life, and all the wonderful opportunities out there!
If your child is acting afraid of food, it’s often a pretext for deeper fears from difficult experiences your child has had. As Patty Wipfler and Tosha Schore describe it in their book Listen: Five Simple Tools To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, ‘those feelings are stored away, raw and powerful still, in the child’s emotional memory. There they sit uneasily, tangled with information about the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the experience.’
So when a child gets picky with food, it’s often that they are projecting their fears and upsets, onto the smells and tastes. It’s hard to be adventurous with new foods when our children are still re-experiencing fear from the past.
I have gone through periods where I have let my daughter’s picky eating slide. I was learning and observing to try and figure out the best approach. I noticed that she was highly sensitive to smells and tastes. As she got older she would sometimes complain about the smell of my food and not want to sit near me! However I began to notice that when she was feeling good she didn’t get so irritated by unusual smells and tastes. So it really wasn’t actually about the food.
Here’s how connection can help. When a child connects with us, they get to feel safe, and they also get to be listened to. One strategy we’ve tried is doing special time before dinner. (You can find out more about Special Time here) My daughter carries that sense of happiness and connection to the dinner table, and then when she sees the food there she sees it through a lens of connection and joy rather than fear.
Another strategy is play and laughter. Children (and adults!) naturally like to giggle away our fears, and and we can bring play to the dinner table with fun and powerful results. (see my article 20 Playful Ways To Help Picky Eaters, for some inspiration).
We can also set limits about food, and listen to the feelings. It’s not about forcing our child to eat something they don’t like. But proposing they try it, and then listening to the upset. (You can read more about this approach which Hand in Hand Parenting calls Staylistening, here).
A few years ago, I wanted to help my daughter expand her pallete. So I decided we would try some new fruits. I told her my plan and we went to the shop and bought a mango and some kiwi. We laughed at these ‘funny fruits’ and took them home. The next day I proposed we tried them, and my daughter cried for a long time. In the end she did try them, and ended up eating two kiwis! After that she liked them and now mango is one of her favourite foods.
At that time we used to go to a music class for toddlers. All the children would play with musical instruments, and then put them back in a basket when it was time to finish. My daughter had always been shy to go up to the basket and didn’t like the rush of children all together. However the two days after I staylistened to her feelings about the new food, she happily rushed up and put her instrument back in the basket. It was amazing to see how listening to her fears about the food was not just about the food, but helping her with fears that were getting in the way of her living life to the full.
I know I go through phases where I just don’t have the energy to figure out how to work on this big emotional project for my daughter, and that’s where listening time helps (You can read more about listening time here). Because every family is different we need time and space to think through the emotional projects we want to help our children with and see how we want to tackle them. Having space to vent our worries, and also talk about how eating was for us as a child allows us to get our head clear to figure out an action plan for our family.
I hope you find these suggestions helpful, and I wish you many happy adventures at the dinner table!